"Active" and "Passive" Voices made Simple
by Tim North, Better Writing Skills.com
Open almost any book on grammar or writing skills, and you'll come across the advice "Use the active voice in preference to the passive voice".
Also, if you use Microsoft Word, you'll often get similar advice from its grammar checker.
Free of all the grammatical jargon, what does this mean?
Well, sentences written in the ACTIVE voice have the following structure:
DO-ER ACTION RECEIVER
John wrote the report.
We misplaced your correspondence.
The council reserved its decision.
The ratepayer thanked him.
As you can see, sentences written in the active voice all start with the do-er of the action.
Sentences written in the PASSIVE voice, though, start with the receiver of the action:
RECEIVER ACTION BY WHOM
The report was written by John.
Your correspondence was misplaced by us.
The decision was reserved by the Council.
He was thanked by the ratepayer.
Okay, so we've made a distinction between the two. This brings us back to the traditional advice that it is preferable to write in the active voice rather than the passive voice.
The reason for this is that the active voice tends to sound simpler and more direct. Also, it often requires fewer words.
The dog bit him. [Active]
He was bitten by the dog. [Passive]
We will send your goods within 14 days. [Active]
Your goods will be sent by us within 14 days. [Passive]
Personally, I don't feel that the world is going to end if you write a few sentences in the passive voice now and then. Nonetheless, using the active voice in the majority of cases will improve your writing by making it simpler and more direct.
The passive voice does have one "advantage" though: it allows us leave out the do-er. Consider this alternative structure for passive sentences:
The report was written. [By whom?]
Your correspondence was misplaced. [By whom?]
The decision was reserved. [By whom?]
He was thanked. [By whom?]
By leaving out the do-er, the passive voice allows us to hide responsibility. It is thus much loved in government reports. :-)
When we write in the active voice, though, we are forced to identify the do-er, and this eliminates a certain amount of evasion.
-------------------------------------------You'll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's much applauded range of e-books. More information is available on his web site, and all books come with a money-back guarantee.
Two-Step Solution... (continued)
First, consider the audience. If the website or book is truly distributed to an international audience, the editor or publisher will need to favor Standard English.. Otherwise, how will someone in a distant country be able to decipher the language? Further, if the story is submitted to a writing contest, the judges will require Standard English.
The writer's point of view may differ, however. If it's true that the best fiction is written for a specific, small audience, and if that audience is local, the writer would find local expression more appropriate. (Is it even possible for a writer to address "everyone"?) In any case, once the story is written, the writer often wishes that the story would also appeal internationally, for the writer prefers a large audience.
Language is a factor, too. For example, if a story is written in a dialect where differentiation between past and past perfect, etc., is not made, the correct verb choices may differ from Standard English. Or, if the story is written in a pidgin or creole language, there may be a perfect excuse for violating Standard English norms. (Gutpela lukim yu!)
Overall, however, while first draft may well be done in local language, the final draft preference should be for Standard English. In fact, when possible,
a two-step process may prove best, since it allows the writer to focus on story itself in the local language version, and then on proper grammar when doing the Standard English version.
This is especially true if the writer is trying to think in the local language but write in Standard English to save time. This is really tough for many writers, and especially those with minimal experience writing fiction. In this case, the two-step solution is best: 1) write a first draft in local language, 2) translate to Standard English.
One caveat - if the writer is having difficulty, the best editor may be an experienced writer in the local area who can explain the local problems of translating to Standard English. At the same time, an editor in a distant country can offer perspectives that may help the writer broaden her or his thoughts regarding the international audience.
However the writer solves this problem, it's best to keep track of all critical feedback obtained from editors and friends. Then, when writing that next story, do a self-edit to correct the problems noted with earlier works.
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